Blog Post December 2020 – Jonathan Dove

It seemed like such a good idea, to write a piece of music which would tell the true story of a refugee’s journey to this country.  Why was it proving so hard?  Why was it taking so long to find refugees who were prepared to talk about their journey?

A new piece of music often begins with an encounter: someone has a dream, a hope, a wish, they want a composer to bring something new into the world, and the composer has to listen and imagine what they might be trying to hear.  A few years ago, I was asked to write a lament for the refugees who have died crossing the Mediterranean.  I suggested that, instead, I tell the story of just one refugee who survived the Mediterranean crossing.

A choir in Bristol joined forces with a performance venue to commission the work, and we agreed we would like to talk to refugees in Bristol.  I had already read Gulwali Passarlay’s The Lightless Sky, his first-hand account of his journey from Afghanistan to England.  He set out when he was twelve.  The journey took him a year.

Because he had told his story so vividly, and because I had also read other refugee’s accounts captured in such books as Patrick Kingsley’s The New Odyssey, I naïvely imagined that it would be easy to meet refugees in Bristol who would be prepared to talk about their experiences to me and to my collaborator, writer Alasdair Middleton.

Some years earlier, Alasdair had been involved in another project exploring journeys to the UK.  He had written the libretto for an opera based on interviews with the parents of pupils at a London school.  All those parents had a story to tell about how they had come from abroad to live in London. The hard thing was to choose from so many stories.  We imagined our Bristol task might be similar.

And this reveals the inadequacy of our imagination and experience in this particular situation.  Even though, as we read a refugee’s story, we were making the journey ourselves in our minds, we had completely failed to grasp how traumatic it was, how overwhelmingly painful the many kinds of abuse and suffering involved along the way, including encounters with the British authorities.  When we put out word that we would like volunteers to tell us their story, we did not realise what we were asking.  We had not imagined the level of care that would be needed to support a refugee reliving recent experiences.

So we were puzzled when Bristol refugee organisations agreed to help us, but this somehow never seemed to lead to meetings.  We realised that issues of trust might be involved, and there was also no particular reason why refugees would be especially interested in the kind of piece we were thinking of making (a stageable oratorio, you might call it).  But we were a long way from understanding the situation.

Weeks passed, months; eventually, after a year, it was agreed that we could meet a group at a refugee centre, introduce ourselves and the project, and have a short conversation on a relatively safe topic: the idea of home.  Over lunch, we enjoyed a good-natured chat with some Somali women about favourite foods.  Then we sat in on a session with three refugees who were preparing, with mentors, to argue their case for asylum in court.  Naturally, they would have to recount some painful experiences in the process.

Their mentors were highly protective of their charges and extremely vigilant about what questions we could ask, which subjects we might explore.  And finally it dawned on us how vulnerable the refugees were.  However lively and engaging and resourceful they might appear, we could not know what they had been through to reach this room.

In the end, we realised that it might be a very long time (if ever) before any of them was ready to talk in detail about what forced them from their homeland and compelled them here.  Instead, through a friend who used to run a refugees’ choir, we were able to talk to two refugees in London who had been settled here for many years.

Both these refugees had recently voluntarily started a project in which they told their stories to groups of performing arts students, who then had to embody and act out the stories they had been told.  One of the two refugees found that the experience of talking to the students reawakened her trauma, and her memories of abuse.  Bravely, she still wanted to talk to us; but when I phoned her the day after our conversation, she admitted that she had had a very difficult night.  The other refugee seemed much less affected, was happy to talk, and shrugged it off.  I realised that I could not know what either of them was going through.

As someone used to listening, and often thought of as sensitive, it was sobering to confront the shortcomings of my imagination.

Odyssey will receive its premiere in 2023.  I hope it will now better reflect the enormity of the experiences of someone forced to flee their home and seek shelter here.